An amiably excited don, notebook in hand, bends his ear to a globe to discern the wandering echoes of past languages in ceaselessly competing euphonies. The image this reader forms of Nicholas Ostler is one Ostler himself might like, inclined as he is to sometimes fanciful metaphors and personification – as when he casts the Phoenician and Hebrew languages as two sisters, one a dazzling beauty whose celebrity proves brief, the other homely and proud but enduring.

Empires of the Word is a history of languages, looking at the factors which have led to their adoption and abandonment over the millennia. While one might assume that this is simply a question of wars and empires, with subject peoples adopting the languages of their new rulers, Ostler shows that the story, like the languages themselves, is altogether more interesting. In fact, not only does he give convincing counterexamples to the notion of a simple correspondence between language adoption and military domination (such as the persistence of the Romance languages after the Germanic conquests of western Europe), his insistence on this point almost reaches the point of a moral dictum, akin to 'torture doesn't work'.

While Ostler theorizes that the success of languages depends to an extent on intrinsic characteristics (of which more below), he is, as a linguist, a conservationist who derides chauvinism: diversity is to be cherished and speakers of endangered languages are to be supported. In keeping with this spirit of liberal inclusiveness, his book covers languages around the world; in around 600 pages, he limits his scope mainly by concentrating on larger languages which spread and for which there is written evidence. And while he argues on pragmatic grounds that groups of people sharing a language form natural units for history, one senses in the author also a certain moral satisfaction that his approach is not one based on peoples or races.

A recurring motif is the idea of language prestige, a quality which may induce people to adopt a spoken language, and later to preserve it as a medium of learning in reverence for its canon of literature (and the social status conferred on those educated in it), as in the case of Sumerian and Greek. Prosperity allows leisure and the evolution of cultures and fashions which others seek to emulate and associate themselves with through language. In modern history, France's wealth was at the root of the esteem in which French was held by the aristocrats of Russia, just as the prestige of English owes much to the Industrial Revolution and, most recently, the ecomomic power of the United States.

But whatever emphasis may be placed on social factors, hard demographics appear crucial. Why did Aramaic, a language of desert nomads, triumph over the relatively prestigious Akkadian of the Assyrian empire? It was not, Ostler asserts, because of a superior alphabetic writing system (literacy was rare); rather it was a side-effect of years of disruptive forced migrations of subject peoples around the empire, a tactic used by the Assyrians to preserve political control. The survival of Chinese and the prolonged resiliance of Egyptian are explained by the relatively high population densities of their speakers. And the reason Old English became a rare example of a Germanic language being sustained by invaders, it now seems, is that the native British – who had kept their Celtic language under the Romans – succumbed to bubonic plague, leaving the field clear for the language used by the migrating Frisians, Saxons, Angles and Jutes.

Ultimately, Ostler uses the rise and fall of past language empires to enjoin humility among speakers of English. While it may now be difficult to imagine the decline of the world's lingua franca, there are adverse indicators: the population of native English-speakers has peaked; English depends for its status on the willingness of non-native speakers to continue learning and using it as a second language; the use of Spanish is increasing in the US; the gap between China's financial power and its population size will narrow (and Mandarin has double the number of speakers of English); during the twentieth century English ceased to be an official language in several countries, including Malaysia. Even in the prestigious field of science and technology, the position of English depends on its remaining the language of the latest advances – and here Ostler does not mention the possible effects of future developments in automated translation, a technology still in its infancy which may eventually counter inertial forces. However long English may survive as the world's interlingua, it is difficult to argue with Ostler's contention that there is a bias towards complacency among its native speakers, just as there was historically among speakers of Latin and other dominant languages.

Besides the sociology, this book is filled with curious facts for anyone fascinated by languages: the development of writing as a generalization of tokens used for accounting; the existence of separate dialects for men and women in Sumerian; the extraordinary analytic pitch attained in the study of grammar that became a tradition in Sanskrit; the surprising similarities between English and Chinese; the dynamics of the breakdown of Latin, particularly the evolution of French; the thesaurus-like style of speaking Nahuatl. There are helpful maps and quoted samples of text throughout, the latter presented in their own original scripts (including ancient ones such as cuneiform and demotic), together with phonetic equivalents and English translations.

An appealing theory espoused by Ostler is that languages are adopted more easily by speakers of structurally similar languages. This would explain how Arabic easily replaced Aramaic and also its success across North Africa where related Hamito-Semitic languages were spoken – and why, despite a religious incentive, Arabic is not today spoken in Iran, Turkey, or Asia. A related theory explains some strange features of Irish, which are unique among the Indo-European languages and which connect it to the Afro-Asiatic region: although the Celtic language prevailed, it may be that these structural features are from an earlier substrate language that were not overcome. It is in the nature of his subject, of course, that Ostler does not have all the answers; while he can, for example, account for the fortunes of Portuguese and Dutch in the East Indies, he can only speculate as to why Sanskrit prevailed over unrelated languages across South-East Asia – though we are assured it was not through military conquest.

Ostler's principal motivation for including the many quotes and translations is to invest his subject with an importance he fears it might otherwise lack: to hint at the way in which different languages affect the outlook and attitudes of their speakers. While this idea may not be inconsistent with a principle of moral equality among languages, Ostler occupies a delicate, if not ambivalent, position. As an English-speaker, one does not have to be a synaesthete to perceive a feminine quality in French – a perception that may be shared by its native speakers (Anatole France: "La langue française est une femme") – though this quality could hardly be claimed to have a neutering effect on male Francophones. And it is easy to go along with Arthur Quiller-Couch's description of English as "masculine, yet free of Teutonic guttural" – while dismissing his unseemly claims of superiority ("pliant as Attic, dignified as Latin, ... dulcet as Italian, sonorous as Spanish") as narcissistic nonsense. Ostler looks sideways at speaker-patriotism and he takes a dim view of the kind of classicist enthusiasms that pervaded the schoolbooks of his youth, typified by "Latin verse composition ... delights to clothe modern thoughts and modern expressions in the dress of ancient metre and rhythm." And yet, at the end of the book, he hopes to have conveyed "Arabic's austere grandeur and egalitarianism; Chinese and Egyptian's unshakeable self-regard; ... Latin's civic sense; Spanish rigidity, cupidity and fidelity..." Surely the very indirectness with which he admits he is forced to hint at such qualities is testament to the fact that languages are after all independent of them?

Empires of the Word is presented as an early work in a new field of language dynamics ('diachronic sociolinguistics'). To whatever extent it may rely for its significance, novelty, or validity on ascribing personalities and philosophies to languages, it seems to be on an uncertain foundation. But to the general reader this will be of little concern: if Ostler treads a shaky line between science and poetry, if he occasionally gets carried away in his imagery and aesthetic enthusiasm, then the main result is to make him more interesting company. In the end, we can at least agree with the author that "the mysteries of linguistic attraction run deep".

Book review © 2008 Michael Breen